André Leon Talley at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival (Photo/Wikimedia)
André Leon Talley at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival (Photo/Wikimedia)

André Leon Talley, Oprah and me

Eulogies to fabled fashion editor André Leon Talley filled the New York Times last month, with words like “mythic,” “creative genius,” “the last of the great pontificating editorial personages.” Talley, who died Jan. 19 at age 73, was all these things, as well as the only Black internationally acclaimed arbiter in the elitist fashion world. Larger than life at 6-foot-6, he “was a singular force in an industry that he had to fight to be recognized in,” his friend Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, told the Times.

Talley and I go way back. Pitted against him as a panelist on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” I had to fight to be recognized, and if the New York Times had printed my letter, mine would have been the only one to allege that Talley was so over the top that he had lost his connection with folks on the ground. I was one of those groundlings, and Talley had no difficulty upstaging me.

In December 1988, when I was a reporter and a disgruntled former fashion writer at the Oakland Tribune, Dianne Hudson, Oprah’s then-executive producer, phoned me on a Wednesday afternoon. Oprah was doing a segment on “The Fashion Conspiracy,” the title of Nicholas Coleridge’s 1988 book. But Coleridge wasn’t available. In desperation, Hudson asked Coleridge’s publicist if he knew anybody else who could address the dark side of the rag trade. He suggested me.

My conflict about being a fashion editor had given me nightmares. The industry had nurtured my immigrant great-grandparents, who had evolved from tailors to manufacturers, and I was grateful that family members offered me wholesale apparel. Yet I felt torn about touting conspicuous consumption, which conflicted with my 1960s values. But in 1977, when offered a job in journalism after eight years as a stay-at-home mom, I grabbed the opportunity. The Contra Costa Times had a part-time job opening for a fashion writer, at $6 an hour. I showed up wearing a cute leather cap. I was hired.

At first, the job was fun: I loved interviewing celebrities, attending galas and organizing photo shoots. But by the 1980s, when I moved to the Oakland Tribune, it became old. During New York’s fall fashion previews, then staged in April on Seventh Avenue, I visited designer showrooms every day and filed from my hotel room every night, using a modem that attached to a phone with suction cups.

Since I was from the “out-of-town press,” Calvin Klein’s gatekeepers informed me, “You will be standing.” The start of the show was delayed by almost an hour, starting only after the arrival of Andy Warhol, who wore chartreuse instead of his usual black. Warhol’s attire made news, but Calvin’s clothes did not, in my opinion. They were expensive but ordinary. “Why am I here?” I said to myself. “I want out.”

But then Oprah drew me back into the fashion arena, flying me into Chicago. On her show, my role was to bare my disillusionment with the fashion establishment. But I didn’t have a chance against the flamboyant Talley, who had schlepped along a collection of clothes that looked as if they were designed for professional women — from the world’s oldest profession.

When he showed a $500 ensemble (nearly $1,200 in 2022 dollars) that could convert into two outfits, making it “affordable,” I demurred, saying that was far beyond my readers’ budgets.

“They can dip into their piggy banks,” he replied.

“My readers don’t have piggy banks,” I said.

“Fashion should be fun,” he continued.

“Yes,” I chimed in, “but there’s a downside to that fun.” Then I talked about the sweatshops in Korea, where shirts that sell for $40 in the U.S. are made for under $2 by a laborer who earns $7 a week and loses his vision by the time he’s 25. “That doesn’t strike me as very much fun.”

The audience clapped, but after I made that point, I couldn’t seem to get much screen time.

After watching the show, my mother called me the Jane Fonda of fashion. Said my father: “They didn’t want to hear what you had to say. You were asked to be controversial, but they wanted the show to be fun. They didn’t want to hear about sweatshops.”

Talley, by contrast, was the Truman Capote of fashion. He came out of poverty in North Carolina. By virtue of talent and grit, he made his home in Fantasyland, where he was never invisible. Lacking his aplomb, I couldn’t possibly outtalk him on “Oprah,” and I was demolished. But if I can smile at the memory, and write about it, I’ll never become invisible.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is writing a memoir on her late-life romance. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].